Russell Crowe did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Officer Wendell "Bud" White in L.A. Confidential.
The first of the lead detectives that we meet is Bud White who brutally beats and busts a husband for beating his wife before going off to the Police station's Christmas party there he proceeds to go along with his thuggish partner to beat up some men accused of violently assaulting some of their fellows police officers leaving one with the impression that Bud is more of a violent thug than keeper of the peace. Russell Crowe was perfectly cast in the part as he has the needed physical presence to make Bud White an always imposing figure. Even more important though is Russell Crowe's incredible screen presence which makes Bud White, even when he is just beating a white beater, extremely compelling to watch. Although Crowe was not a star before this film it is very easy to see why that changed with this film. Crowe commands the screen here and even makes the early thuggish Bud White an interesting character.
Guy Pearce did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Det. Lt. Edmund "Ed" Exley in L.A. Confidential.
The second lead detective we meet in the film is that of Ed Exley played by Guy Pearce. Pearce, was also a fairly obscure name at the time, and although, for whatever reason, he did not become a star from this film it was definitely a breakout of sorts for him. Pearce in the opening is trying to run the police station where Bud and several other cops decide to beat up the suspects. Ed in this first also seems to be a very particularly man that being the straight forward cop who just wants to do things by the books, and refuses to break any of the laws while upholding the law. Pearce does not mind really playing Ed as the stiff he is, and does well to have it so there is a certain weakness in his attempt at command especially compared to Crowe's performance as Bud. A stiff also might seem like an uninteresting character particularly in the way we see Ed from the beginning, but Pearce also makes his character instantly watchable through his considerable charisma even in a part like this.
Both men and performances seems especially specific but this is all part of the brilliance of both the film and the work here by both actors. Shortly enough we learn that this initial view of the men truly is only the surface and we learn more about them. Bud, for example, does not just take on the occasional wife beater he seems to take on every one he hears about with an extreme prejudice. Crowe is excellent in his portrayal of Bud's reaction to any moment where violence against a woman is seen or even heard about. Crowe's portrays it as something very deep inside Bud as practically a psychotic burst of energy that drives the man. It is not just anger that Crowe shows in him as it is a primal force, but there is a righteousness about it that can be felt. Crowe brings, even in such a vicious intensity, that there is just as intense of an empathy that can be felt through his portrayal of Bud's behavior.
We don't instantly learn more about Ed, that's for a little later, but Pearce still excels in fleshing out the character. One particularly effective choice on Pearce's part is to show an immediate change in Ed since after the police brutality Ed choice to testify against his own officers ensuring himself a promotion to a higher ranking detective. Pearce very naturally brings out a greater command in his performance the moment Ed takes his new position. What Pearce does so well is show that Ed has in no one changed in the brief time from his first scene to this scene, but rather that there is very prideful, and even a certain smugness to Ed since he was only proven right in his dedication to his code. Pearce from this point carries Ed as a man with an unshakable confidence thanks to being vindicated, and it absolutely works in creating Ed, at least at first, as this sort of wall of justice so strong that it seems nothing can break through it.
Pearce and Crowe are both exceptional in portraying the officers differing styles in enforcing the laws through the performance, particularly when they both go to take down some men accused of committing a massacre. Both show a great precision in their performances although in very different fashions. Crowe, when Bud goes to infiltrate their hideout early to be able to kill the culprit rather than take him in, moves with a controlled passion. Crowe is terrific because he is able to, in complete silence, suggest both the extreme hatred behind Bud's eyes yet still in a completely controlled fashion fitting for a detective who's doing his duty in a professional way, well a professional way of sorts anyway. Pearce is a little different though as Ed seems to value brains over brawn which can be seen when he interrogates the men.
Pearce is fantastic in the interrogation scene showing in vivid detail Ed's method as he confuses each man to be able to derive the confessions he wants. Pearce carries the whole side with a considerable cool and completely shows Ed Exley in his element as a detective. Pearce portrays the different methods so flawlessly form his subtle constant intimating tone, but as well through a slightly casual manner about his method as well. Pearce almost weaves the scene as if he is putting on a magic show and just handles the scene beautifully. He commands and control every moment just up until the point in which Bud White literally crashes through into the interrogation room. When Ed gets almost everything he wants out of them in his confession you absolutely believe it because Pearce realizes it so incredibly well. It's just some marvelous work by Pearce, and easily one of the highlights of this performance.
After the take down of the men the two detectives either change or more is revealed about themselves. Bud White's revelations mostly come in through his relationship with a high class prostitute Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) a Veronica Lake look a like. Although my liking of Basinger's performance, which I already found not particularly special, has lessened even more Crowe's performance in these scenes is outstanding. He begins it simple enough as he acts like the tough cop pushing forward the idea of masculinity as it pertains to his general toughness. What is so amazing about what Crowe does is peel that back and reveal the much more honest Bud under his tough exterior. When Bud finally does ask her out there is such a genuine vulnerability in the moment. Crowe does not over do it, but he gives us just the right glimmer of who Bud really. In the subsequent scenes with Basinger Crowe is extremely effective as he so honestly removes the intensity to reveal Bud as a man traumatized by his youth, and rather wounded by the way he is only used as a thug.
Pearce is not one to be outshone though and stays equally as compelling as Crowe as we see Ed as he begins to see that there are some compromises that he must make if he's going to be able to catch all the criminals. Pearce is such a great actor in portraying the reactionary change of a character with very little dialogue to convey. The film never stops to have Ed explain or even stop to talk about the fact that he's going to bending some rules. This is almost a wordless transformation and thankfully Pearce is on hand since he's pretty much an expert at this. Pearce is basically flawless as he slowly shows Ed lose his own crafted exterior a bit, and loses that smugness from before. It is not that Pearce shows Ed to become less of an officer, rather Pearce effortlessly portrays the way the realities of the cop naturally set in on Ed. When Ed makes the decision to kill the suspects it's quick and to the point, but given quite the power through Pearce's expression which shows what's going in Ed's mind at the time.
One of my favorite scenes with Pearce's portrayal of Exley's loss of veneer as he confronts Lynn over her affair with Bud only to learn that it is legit. Pearce is pitch perfect in the scene as he shows a visible effort in Ed as he tightens his jaw and keeps glare to try to show as if Ed is just as manly as the Bud. Pearce creates just enough of a childish notion in Ed's behavior that when he as sex with Bracken, it is basically his faulty attempt to out man Bud. To be fair to old Ed, it's not all about a loss of veneer as seen in an important scene with the other detective of the film Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). Ed tells Jack why he became a cop in the first place which was to catch the idea of the man who killed his own father, who was also a cop. Although some of his moral statements might have had slight pomposity earlier none of that can be found in this scene. Pearce brings the needed poignancy to the moment as he reveals exactly what has driven Ed from the very beginning.
Despite both Pearce and Crowe being the leads of the film they actually don't interact all that much, until the third act. The wait is well worth it though as Crowe and Pearce play off each other impeccably well. The interesting thing is they manage to both have no chemistry and a lot of chemistry at the same time. On one hand their differing styles stay firmly in place and it is wonderful to see Crowe and Pearce handle every scene with the controlled Ed and the emotional Bud. They overlap and under lap in the scenes and it is really something watch. They also do have such a chemistry they form as the characters finally understand that both of them are, despite their differences, trying to do the right thing. It is an unspoken truth about the two and that is best shown by their final scene together where one of them isn't even allowed to speak. Crowe and Pearce create the connection though so even though you don't know what both of them are saying, you understand exactly what it means.
Despite the strength of their performances, and the fact that the film definitely had support neither Peace nor Crowe managed to garner any support from the Academy for this film. Although the academy should be blamed a bit for recognizing perhaps the weakest performance in the film while ignoring every other performance in the film somehow, technically so should many other awards bodies who did exactly the same thing. It's a shame though because Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe create one of the all time great screen duos in this film. Both manage to individually fully realize their characters not as simple archetypes, as they might appear in the opening scenes of the film, but rather as truly complex men. Their dynamic together carries this film to the incredible heights that it achieves. These simply are two great performances from two great actors.